When Yao Ming went down during the third game of the Houston Rockets' Western Conference semifinals series vs. the Los Angeles Lakers on May 8, the big man moaned and slapped the floor. Now it is Chinese fans' turn to grimace after a team doctor announced on June 29 that the stress fracture in the Chinese basketball player's left foot is more serious than previously feared, and could even end the 7-ft. 6-in. center's career.
"At this point, the injury has the potential for him missing this next season, and could be career-threatening," Rockets team physician Tom Clanton told the Houston Chronicle. "One of the things we are trying to get is a consensus opinion on that, to make certain there is no option we are overlooking that would provide an earlier return or would be an option for treatment that he would prefer rather than doing additional surgery."
Yao is an undisputed icon of Chinese basketball, the country's most high-profile player in what is probably the nation's most popular sport. While not the first Chinese hoopster to play in the NBA that distinction goes to Wang Zhizhi, who was drafted by the Dallas Mavericks in 1999 Yao is by far the most prominent. A seven-time NBA All-Star and pillar of the Chinese national team, his angular face can be seen on everything in China from Coke billboards to Visa ads. His annual endorsement income last year was estimated at $36 million, more than triple that of the next highest-paid Chinese sports pitchman, hurdler Liu Xiang.
Chinese fans were shocked and saddened to hear about the seriousness of Yao's injury. "I thought it was fake when I first heard about it. I can't believe he has such bad luck!" says Ma Cheng, a 28-year-old who plays basketball with colleagues every day at the Dongdan Sports Center in central Beijing.
Granted, Yao's star has faded slightly in China, his jersey being outsold in recent years by other NBA stars like Kobe Bryant. But he is still closely followed. "I'm so bummed out about his injury," says Yan Xin, 27, a Yao fan who never misses a Rockets game when they are televised in China. "In hindsight, he should have just focused on the NBA, and not be forced to play for the Chinese national team. I can't imagine how anyone can deal with such overwhelming pressure and intense schedules."
Chinese fans have grown accustomed to seeing Yao out with an injury. While he has noticeably toughened up over his seven seasons in the NBA, he has often been hurt. In February 2008 he suffered a stress fracture in his left foot that kept him out of the NBA playoffs, but he returned to play for his country in the Beijing Olympics. He carried China's flag into the Olympic stadium and led the Chinese men to the quarterfinals, where they lost to Lithuania. This past NBA season was the first since 2004-05 that he didn't miss a significant number of games due to injury.
After seeing their hero return from injury so many times before, few in China seem ready to declare him finished. Eric Zhang, Yao's agent, told the China Daily that it was premature to call an end to the center's career, and many fans agree. "I think whether he can make a comeback depends on his own attitude," says Ma, during a break from a pickup game in Beijing. "There are plenty of basketball players who managed to do that after major injuries. I don't see why Yao Ming should be an exception."
With reporting by Jessie Jiang / Beijing